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Alaska appoints investigator dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous people

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A crisis of violence. That's how the White House has described the disproportionate rates of assault, abduction and murder faced by Native Americans in the U.S. Alaska is one of the states with the highest rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Last month, the state's Department of Public Safety hired its first investigator to focus specifically on this. Her name is Anne Sears. She was the first Alaska Native woman to serve as an Alaska state trooper.

ANNE SEARS: My work as a trooper working in rural Alaska for 15 years, being an Indigenous woman raised in rural Alaska, kind of all led to this job.

RASCOE: Alaska has unique law enforcement challenges. Rural communities around the state, which are home to many Alaska Native people, don't have roads in or out. And many don't have a state trooper. One has to fly in if there's a crime. Sears says she may wind up assisting troopers on the ground in those places as new cases come up. But a lot of her focus is on unsolved cases around the state.

SEARS: I think the newest one that I'm looking at is about a year and a half old. I had somebody contact me about the relative who was found murdered about 40 years ago. And no suspect was developed in that case. So the time span is humongous. I've had people in the public reach out by phone, by email, contacting me, letting me know about their missing or murdered loved one. So right now, the scope is getting reports, getting photographs, looking at evidence that is still in an evidence locker or still with the police department that has the case and seeing what jumps out at me. I mean, I think looking at it with new eyes, with a different mind frame and seeing if there's a thread that I can pull - maybe they did develop a suspect, but they couldn't get anywhere with that person, maybe seeing if we can take a new tack.

RASCOE: Alaska's governor, Mike Dunleavy, has faced some criticism for not bringing in enough law enforcement to rural Alaska quickly enough. Recently, he has said that they've increased trooper numbers. Do you think that it's enough? Because there has been some criticism of him when it comes to that.

SEARS: You know, I was talking with a co-worker that has been around a lot longer than I have been. You know, and unfortunately, the numbers that we have right now of troopers hasn't changed a whole lot from about 1980. So I think adding more troopers will definitely help. Getting more troopers into our rural communities is going to take more infrastructure. I mean, more is always better, right, Ayesha?

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Totally.

SEARS: But we also need the infrastructure to go along with that.

RASCOE: And it seems like it might be difficult to find people...

SEARS: I think it is.

RASCOE: ...To be at these kind of remote posts, find housing...

SEARS: Yes.

RASCOE: ...And things of that nature. You know, one thing that often pops up in the national conversation about this issue from advocates and victims' families is that some of these cases don't get solved because of discrimination or apathy. What's your response when you hear those types of criticisms?

SEARS: As - well, as an Alaska Native woman and in the position that I am in now as an investigator for MMIP, I hope that any family member or any relative, any friend of a missing or murdered Indigenous person - if they felt that is how their loved one's case was handled that they would reach out to me. I would be happy to talk to them. I would be happy to look at the case, see if there's anything more or better that - you know, that the troopers could do.

RASCOE: What else do you think could be done to make meaningful change on this issue in your state?

SEARS: That is a multifaceted question. I think it is going to be, you know, knowledge and talking about it and shining a light on it and keep shining a light on it, not just on, you know, May 5 every day or every every year, sorry.

RASCOE: And May 5 is Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person's Awareness Day.

SEARS: Exactly. Yes, ma'am. Shining a light on it and keeping the conversation going is going to be a means to an end.

RASCOE: Investigator Anne Sears, head of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative in Alaska's Department of Public Safety.

Thank you so much for being with us.

SEARS: Thank you, Ayesha, for your time. And I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.